You Can’t Take it With You is one of the great classics in American theatre. This comedy written by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman has received many awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, a Broadway Revival, and a movie adaptation which won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Set in New York City in the 1930s, the play tells the story of two families, The Sycamores: an eccentric family made up of a variety of “family members” ranging from the tax-evading and snake collecting Grandpa Sycamore who quit his job years ago to pursue a life of enjoyment, his son Paul Sycamore who spends his time making fireworks in the basement, Penny Sycamore who spends her time writing plays, Essie and Ed who march to the beat to their own drum and seem to live in the clouds, an ice delivery man who arrived to deliver a package and never left, among many other “permanent guests”, and then Alice Sycamore who appears to be the only “normal” one in the family.
Then we meet the Kirby’s: a high-class family that represents quintessential corporate America. Mr. Kirby owns a successful business, works on Wall Street and is a workaholic; his wife comes from wealth and has an interest in spiritualism, and then their son Tony. Tony tries hard to follow in his father’s footsteps and is Vice President of the company, but finds a lack of fulfillment in following his father and taking over the business. He is in love with Alice and is intrigued by her family’s interesting way of life, especially observing their love and relationships for each other that are missing from his own family.
Tony proposes to Alice who accepts with some trepidation because she is afraid that her family will never measure up to the high class Kirby’s. The two arrange a dinner at the Sycamore home. Alice goes through great lengths to prepare for the Kirby’s, in an attempt to save embarrassment and pass her family off as “normal” to the Kirby’s. However, her plan is undone by Tony, who wants his parents to see the Sycamores as “their true selves”, so he tells his parents to arrive a night early for dinner. This is where the fun begins!
You Can’t Take it With You asks a lot of questions on what really matters in life and explores two ends of the spectrum. The one family, who openly expresses themselves, their feelings and pursues their interests at the cost of stability and providing their children a successful future; and then the other family that is so wrapped up in worldly success, reputation, and wealth that they neglect their relationship, sharing their feelings or caring for each other. Though the play tends to side with the Sycamore family as knowing what is really important, I believe that a middle ground is ideal and necessary for true happiness and a fulfilled life. The audience gets to examine their own lives and question where on this spectrum they fall.
I say that this performance was “passable but not impressive.” And let me explain. The lines were all memorized, no obvious missed lines or mishaps, and the actors were well rehearsed. The set, constructed by Mark Taggart, was excellent; it was very well designed with lots of levels, props and color. The props added some nice comedic moments such as having a skull shaped candy jar and a Hawaiian Tiki as the pencil container. The stage space was well utilized by the actors and the director, Robin Booth, did a nice job with blocking and creating pictures and variety. The technical aspects went fairly smoothly—the microphones were generally working, and light cues and sound cues were all on (nice work Lance and Faemarie Whitaker, Ciera Warejski and David Chapa for this). And the costumes, wigs, hairstyles, makeup were carefully done with historical accuracy which enhanced the production (Tangie Walpole, Audra Crandall, and Rochelle Zibetti). So it passed. But for me, this is only the beginning.
In order for the theme of You Can’t Take It With You to be successfully shared, we must see the characters change as the play progresses and as the characters embrace this theme. I do not feel that this change was as clear as it could have been and by the end I was not as moved or touched as I usually am after watching this show. There were a lot of unanswered questions for me. Such as: “Why did Mr. Kirby have a change of heart and embrace the Sycamores crazy way of life?” or “Why did Alice decide to stay and re-unite with Tony?” These questions among others were not answered clearly enough and I did not see this journey from many of the actors to motivate their change.
A lot of the reasons for this lack of clarity were due to some weak actors. There were some strong actors in this show and some nice moments, but because this is such a fast paced and ensemble driven piece, everyone has to be working together to pull it off. Some of the weak links kept the ensemble from being fully in sync.
Let me point out some of the stronger actors first and some of the moments that really worked well. Lon Keith as Martin Vanderhof was superb. He had such a natural delivery of his lines and he embraced the comedy in a very believable manner. His facial expressions, reactions, movements and great variety of tactics made him engaging to watch from beginning to end. I was thoroughly impressed by his performance. Likewise, Robin Booth, who played Penelope Sycamore, was very strong. She was grounded in her character and filled each beat with lots of little nuances and had a great laugh. Her scene when she exited up the stairs after retrieving her “sex play” and laughing raucously was especially entertaining. Though I feel that it is impossible to effectively wear the hat of director and actor at the same time. And though Ms. Booth did an exceptional job in this role, the production suffered a bit as a result, as she could not see everything from an outside point of view. I strongly discourage directors from casting themselves, especially in a principal role. I have never seen a strong production where this has been the case.
Lesil Cope as Essie, and Dominic Bills as Ed, played a hilarious eccentric couple. They were perfect for each other and really lived in their own world. With Essie twirling across the stage in every scene as a ballerina, though her character is quite the terrible dancer, and Ed, who enjoys making masks and playing the xylophone; together Ms. Cope and Mr. Bills had great chemistry and were fully committed to their characters. One of my favorite moments of theirs was when they tell Alice that they asked Grandpa if it is ok for them to have a baby and he said that it would be OK by him. This describes them in a nutshell.
I also thought that Nate Warebski was very strong as Donald. I read that he is only a junior in high school. He has a great career ahead of him. He was very grounded in his delivery and had great comedic timing. I enjoyed his reactions to the other characters and his facial expressions and physicality that he explored throughout the show.
Some of the greatest laughs came from the talented Bryan Cardoza as Mr. De Pinna. Mr. Cardoza did a fantastic job in this role. Whether he was posing in his Roman costume for a portrait by Penny or showing off a new firework, he consistently maintained a playful and childlike quality to his character that added a believable innocence to the role.
Despite some strong performances, too many of the other principals and supporting characters were weak and pulled me out of the show at times.
Joni Newman as Alice had some strong moments and is clearly a talented actress, though at times she was a bit inconsistent. I do not feel that she listened as well to the other actors on stage that she was interacting with. There was not a clear enough relationship established with her other family members and she and Tony did not have the chemistry necessary to pull off a believable “couple in love.” I also do not know at what point she had a change of heart towards the end of the show and decided to accept her family for who they were and stay with Tony, I wanted greater clarity here and to see that discovery (or “ah ha” moment as it is sometimes referred to). As she entered each scene, I wanted to see her begin acting or responding to what was going on in the scene before she recited her first line. Greater listening would have strengthened her character and her relationships with the other actors.
The Kirby family was the weak link for me. The role of Tony has been played by many well-known actors (such as Jimmy Stewart), and there is a certain expectation with the part. Tony is a “man’s man” and I felt that Gregory Duffin was much too soft for the role. I wanted a greater sense of masculine energy from Mr. Duffin and this would have helped strengthen his chemistry with Alice. He also looked considerably older than Alice and I had trouble believing their relationship. Towards the end of the show, Tony’s argument with his father, where he really “puts his father in his place” fell flat. Tony needs to be able to take command of the stage and we needed to see that Vice President in him come through at times both physically and in his line delivery.
Likewise, Mr. Kirby played by Alan Nelson suffered from a similar problem. I had trouble believing that Mr. Nelson was the cutthroat CEO on Wall Street. His physicality was much too weak to believe that he was use to being “the boss” and I really did not see any moments or realization or regret to motivate his sudden change of heart by the end of the play. He also needed a greater variety of tactics to make his character dimensional; his portrayal led to a very flat Mr. Kirby that I lost interest in quickly.
Also, Mrs. Kirby, played by either Connie Warenski or Becky Wright (the program was not clear who was on which night –this review is for the Friday, Sept. 14th performance), was particularly weak. Not only did she lack the eloquence and snood of a wealthy wife of the CEO, but also her reactions were not believable. She was one-dimensional and did a lot of showing and mugging. Her facial expressions felt very put on and she had basically one tactic that she repeated over and over. And that expression was “I am annoyed.” Ok, I got that in the first minute of her onstage. I wanted to see this annoyance grow to frustration, shock, disgust, fear, anger, etc. But her adjective was “I am playing annoyed” over and over. She needed to explore a much greater variety of tactics and this would have heightened the comedy. She also needed to improve her physicality (how she moved, sat, stood, etc. needed to exude grace and elegance at all times) for us to believe that she was a prim and proper woman of high society.
Rheba (Elizabeth Jensen) struggled with the dialect. I could not understand what dialect she was attempting. I went home and tried to do some research to figure out of if there was a common dialect used in this role and I could not figure it out (as it is usually played by an African American actress). It was sort of Irish, sort of Scottish, that slipped in and out of an American accent (with diphthongs often appearing in certain words making her sound very Utah-like). I couldn’t get past this inconsistency and she was so focused on the dialect that it made her rather stiff and I never really “got her”. I would suggest dropping the accent all together or picking a different one that might be easier for her to handle (perhaps a Southern American accent could have worked).
Paul Sycamore (Mark Taggart) listened to his fellow actors well and had a natural line delivery. His character was grounded and believable, but I didn’t really get his story. He doesn’t have as many lines as many of the other characters, but I wanted more from him.
A few supporting characters that deserve mentioning are: Boris Kolenkhov (Christopher Bradford) who played the Russian Dance instructor. He had great comedic timing and handled the dialect well. He added much to physical comedy of the show and had great instincts. He was matched by the Grand Duchess Olga Katrina (Karen Amsden); it appeared from reading her bio in the program that Ms. Amsden is a newcomer to the stage and she usually works backstage. This was perfect casting. Her accent was right on (it may have been authentic, I am not sure because it was so exact). I hope to see her onstage again. She only had a couple of scenes but she was a highlight of the production and stole many of the scenes she was in.
Unfortunately a few of the other minor parts were weak. The Police Chief (Rochelle Zibetti) completely killed the energy at the end of the first scene in Act II. She needed to come on the stage and take command. Her low energy and slow pace in the role was not believable and didn’t work. Also Gay Wellington’s (Sarah Dickson) attempt at playing drunk, looked just like that, “someone pretending to be drunk.” I wonder if Ms. Dickson has ever been drunk before. Drunken people try really hard to act normal and concentrate on everything they do. Her choices were over the top and looked contrived. I didn’t believe her.
Act I set out the exposition of the characters and the groundwork for the show well. Act I also moved at a good pace with a nice shape. But Act II was too slow paced and seemed to drag. I realized that this was in large part due to the Kirby’s that kept the show from attaining the synergy and functioning as an ensemble, as well as the Police Chief who brought down the energy at what should have been the height of this build. The first scene in Act II needed to be like a boiling pot that grows and grows to the end of the scene. At which point the energy is so high that the pot literally boils over and explodes. The writing is created this way that the end of the scene literally explodes in fireworks. I didn’t see the build that this scene needed and the stakes needed to be heightened. Likewise Scene II of this Act also seemed to drag and it needed more energy and drive to it. This is where we needed to see the change of the characters occur and witness some real discoveries. By and large these were lost, and so the show ended on a low note and was rather anticlimactic.
I appreciate the effort put into by the cast, the excellent set, an informative program, nice costuming and some exceptional performances by a number of the principals. However, some of the newcomers could have benefited from some additional coaching to add some depth and a greater subtext to their characters. You Can’t Take it With You has an excellent message and really makes the audience question what is most important in life. At the end of this life, how do you want to be remembered? As the kind and loving Grandpa Vanderhoff, who had no worldly possessions to show for, but had spent a life of making friends and helping others, or as the wealthy Mr. Kirby, who had attained a life of success by worldly standards and had great riches to pass on though never took the time to help others or care for those around him. This theme, mixed with some politics, and some great comedy makes You Can Take It With You a universal and relatable show that we can all benefit from seeing.
The Springville Playhouse production of You Can’t Take It With You plays each Monday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 7:30 PM through September 29 at Merit Academy (1440 West Center Street, Springville). Tickets are $7-8. For more information, visit springvilleplayhouse.org.